Virtual Theater Review: chekhovOS /an experimental game/ (Arlekin Players Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 27, 2021

in Theater-International,Theater-New York,Virtual


Beamed to us from the Chekhov Operating System (chekhovOS), a virtual panoply that contains the great Russian playwright’s works and forlorn characters — who spout about how alternately beautiful and broken our world is — our hostess Natasha, one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, has the audience, live on Zoom, vote on which play we are interested in examining so as to possibly release these poor wretches from their endless loop of misery and despair (you know, all those tragedies that scholars deem comedies). With dead seagulls lying about, she watches the tally from spectators around the world, and asks with a pleading ache, “Why is it always The Cherry Orchard?” And thus we go from incredibly rendered moments culled form the great play to Anton Chekhov himself back to Natasha — all within this videographic universe. No more on that — you’ll find out when you see it.

Natasha, played by Darya Denisova, comes to us live from Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre, whose Artistic Director Igor Golyak conceived and directed this fascinating meld of theater, film and video game technology. The Cherry Orchard scenes were filmed at Baryshnikov Arts Center in NYC. The technical director Vladimir Gusev is working from Moscow. With six more technical designers and a show that runs on over 10 pieces of software, this is a big deal.

Sadly, Natasha’s sound went out during our performance, but it was a minor glitch. Yet, that combined with the not-so-interactive nature — viewers “chatting” from Berlin, Moscow, L.A., et al; Natasha asking one viewer to name an orange vegetable; voting on our Smartphones — only substantiates what I have felt since CGI basically made cinema style over substance: No matter how technically wondrous a production may be — and this is a marvel — nothing is as powerful as a great actor reciting powerful dialogue, as evidenced by Mikhail Baryshnikov reading letters Chekhov wrote while writing Cherry Orchard.

When Mikhail does appear, you will be transfixed by his performance. Full of the subtlest hints of melancholy, humor, wisdom, self-awareness, acceptance and discovery, this is the storied dancer’s greatest work. One viewer commented on the Zoom Chat that his readings could be an entire show. I agree.

And for all the animation and special effects, nothing bests the performers in scenes from The Cherry Orchard. The powerhouse cast includes a loopy, deeply emotional take from Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya; a luminescent Anna Baryshnikov as Varya; Anna Bortnick as Charlotta; Jeffrey Hayenga, who will break your heart as Fiers; Melanie Moore as Anya; Mark Nelson as Gaev; and a knockout Nael Nacer as the conflicted Lopakhin. These actors are what touch our hearts. (The unseen Anna Bortnick is Charlotta the computer voice.)

It is Golyak’s concept that touches our mind. Is humanity actually stuck in a never-ending cycle of wrong choices, stubbornness, unrequited love, poverty, illusions, etc? Is life a comedy of errors or a tragedy of choices? Are we all just masked victims of a constantly changing world? And while the premise of chekhovOS /an experimental game/ is brilliantly funny, you won’t find the interpretations of The Cherry Orchard very amusing — which I’m guessing is part of the point. (Equally unamusing is this new habit of small caps and punctuation in show titles, Stop. It’s pretentious and tough on journalists.)

Mindbogglingly enough, Golvak highlights that — while we are endlessly promised that our votes actually count — it’s the powers-that-be (the OS, the rich, the creator) who truly control what’s going on in our world.

The Cherry Orchard is basically about how hard it can be to accept change. It’s also about how resilient people can be in the face of change. And, although a string of melancholy threads its way throughout the play, its characters are rife with placid humor. It offers an optimistic view of civilization, which is precisely what a comedy does. We’re left with the reassuring notion that everything really is going to be all right.

But is everything going to be all right with the smooshing of technology and theater? The audience as jury is out on that one. We are so friggin’ besieged with screens on a daily basis that I’m beginning to resent theater on a screen. And yet, get ready world, cause theater companies around the world have discovered one major thing during the COVID era: If you wanna make more money, you gotta have more patrons. Thus, expect theaters to be beaming their shows from theaters around the world. Lately, I feel as if theater is the cherry orchard and technology is the ax just waiting in the wings.

photos courtesy of Arlekin Players Theatre

chekhovOS /an experimental game/
Arlekin Players Theatre
remaining performances:
Sunday, May 30 at 11:00am EST
Sunday, June 6 at 8:00pm EST
Sunday, June 13 at 8:00pm EST
Sunday, June 20 at 8:00pm EST
Thursday, June 24 at 8:00pm EST
for tickets (free), visit Arlekin’s Virtual Theater Lab, Zero Gravity Art

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeff Sandusky May 28, 2021 at 12:40 pm

Lovely review! I would buy tickets for an online show if it was just MB reading letters without the other stuff!

I’m glad you added your musings about theater and digital. Just like video killed the radio star….


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